In a modern hectic world that lacks enough hours, or so it appears, we seem unable to escape from a retail market that has nearly everything that caters to all our whims and wishes, from the mega-markets of Costco and Wegman’s to eating establishments that offer a fare encompassing a wide variety of cuisines, whether it is Global Fusion (I ate at such a place but it was not worth writing about), Pan-Asian (see blogs on Café Asia and Hee Been Bistro), Pan-European, or the many variations out there. But one cuisine that has resisted such grouping has been the cuisines of Latin America. Why? Try calling any Latino a Mexican, Puerto Rican, Dominican, or Salvadorian without first ascertaining his/her background; the usual acerbic response (“Excuse me, I AM …..) is a good indicator of the nationalistic sentiment that is proudly worn with a certain tinge of defensiveness. With a huge Latino population in the DC area arriving from different nations and subsequent generations being born locally, this subtle yet well-demarcated border is slowly evaporating away with one group incorporating cultural traits and habits from those once viewed with suspect – look at the current popularity of Dominican Bachata music among all Latino groups.
So, when an online coupon offer popped up for a Pan-Latino restaurant, I knew I had to click BUY and explore this unique establishment. Café Citron is located a few doors away from Kababji, a recently reviewed Lebanese restaurant, just south of the busy and pedestrian-heavy Dupont Circle, a neighborhood that has been become chic among the young professionals who have homogenized this once gay ghetto – a large Anne Klein store popping up and the demise of a much beloved gay-oriented bookstore pretty much sealed this deal. From the outside, the restaurant is hardly conspicuous that it is easy to overlook its narrow entrance that seems to be overshadowed by nearby encroaching establishments. But once pass its entryway, you step into a long room filled with banquets on one side and a long bar on the other. I chose to plop myself down at a table upstairs that overlooked the main floor, hoping that I would get some sufficient decent light for this review.
Since I arrived during their Happy Hour (4:00-7:30 p.m.) and the place was already packed with young early diners, I decided to make my selections from the Starters/Tapas menu. I placed my order of 3 meat dishes from the “Qué Rico” (How Tasty) section and an equal amount from the “El Mar” (The Sea) side. For the first meat dish, I chose a house favorite of Venezuelan Empanadas, of which one was stuffed with beef and the other with chicken. Taking my first bite, I marveled at the cornflour dough that was crispy on the outside but moist and slightly spongy under its exterior. Both fillings had moist pieces of meat that were both slightly sweet and savory at the same time, with a hint of cumin to tie in the opposite flavors, much like a Bastilla dish found in Moroccan cuisine (cinnamon is used in this case). The side of spicy and garlicky cilantro sauce added the necessary acidity and spice kick to these small morsels. No surprise that these tasty bites are a house favorite judging by how quickly I devoured them.
Bolivian Sonso with Beef came as the next meat selection. Cubes of beef have been marinated in “exotic spices” and sautéed; they were tender and had the dark spice notes, but initially seemed a bit under salted until I got accustomed to the flavors. The patties of yucca mash and cheese were very delectable and these discs more or less stole the beef’s limelight. The outer part was crisp from the breading and frying, but rich and fluffy in the middle, providing a certain comfort-food quality. The use of yucca here points to the dish’s origins, most likely from the eastern lowlands bordering Brazil since this tropical root does not grow in the interior highlands. The side of the same cilantro sauce above added the necessary notes that lightened the rather filling patties.
Another Bolivian starter was the next choice: Bolivian Potato Cake. A thick pancake made of mashed potato was stuffed with seasoned ground beef and pan-fried, looking much like a Johnny Cake. It was rather fluffy with bits of seasoned beef in the middle. I felt transported to this landlocked nation with the potato cake knowing that the tuber is an indigenous staple of the Andean highlands. Being potato, it was a little stodgy and greasy from the frying. However, the side of spicy salsa and fresh Pico de Gallo added the necessary relief to the heaviness of the dish; an interesting dish though.
OK, enough meat for me, which seems to be staple of Latin-American cuisine. Seafood makes the other mainstay in most Latin-American diet due to the many nations that are surrounded by large bodies of water. My first order was Calamari a la Plancha. This type of seafood cooking is typical at seaside resorts found in Spain and South America. Most of the time, I’m quite leery of the way that most restaurants cook this mollusk, which results in a rubbery toughness. But in this case, it was tender, near fork tender. The large quantity of these seafood rings exuded smokiness from the high-heat searing on the flat griddle. The squeeze of lemon juice was all it needed to make this simple clean tasting dish soar. All this seafood for just $8 during Happy Hour makes it a must-order.
After having recently sampled another restaurant’s rendition of Ceviche and coming out dissatisfied, I decided to give this establishment a try. It arrived in a beautiful scallop-shaped bowl brimming with pieces of shrimp, fish, and chunks of fresh avocado, surrounded by a pile of fresh nacho chips. I must say that I was delighted that I ordered this dish since the shrimp and trout pieces (thank goodness it wasn’t the muddy Tilapia used in the last place) carried a clean tasting citrus flavor without being too acidic. The use of cilantro, fresh tomatoes, sweet red onions, and jalapeño peppers added the extra notes to the seafood, while the nacho scoopers provided the textural contrast to the moist and tender morsels. My only criticism is the slight iodine flavor in the shrimp which was the result of the use of table salt – sea salt would impart a cleaner taste. This wonderful version brought my taste buds to the seaside villages of Peru and Chile, renowned for their renditions of this pickled seafood dish. For $9 during Happy Hour, this would fill your mouth with some seafood joy.
The last dish originates from Mexico, namely Baja California. Shrimp Corn Tortilla Tacos is a regional specialty that takes advantage of the abundance of seafood in the northwestern coast of that country. I quite enjoyed this dish with the homemade corn tortillas that had a faint scent of corn and lime, the rather firm but well-seasoned pieces of grilled shrimp, and the pieces of ripe avocado that lent a richness to these wraps. As with tradition, the tortillas were the soft kind and they came in doubles to be able to support all the bits of seafood goodness. The cilantro leaves and red onions added some pungency, herbal fragrance, and sweetness to the shrimp, while a squeeze of lemon juice, also customary, gave the tacos the citrus hit that made them even more delectable.
Pan-Latino is here to stay, and I am thrilled that Café Citron is the trailblazer in an over-saturated market of Latino restaurants, especially in the Washington DC area, offering a wide variety of tasty offerings from the myriad of Latin-American cuisines that reflect their unique history and their regional and topographical differences. Looking through the menu, I am tempted to pay this establishment another visit soon to try their other dishes that are Cuban, Peruvian, Mexican, or Bolivian-inspired that seem to evoke unique flavors and combinations. Maybe I will end up getting up and shuffling my feet during the free Salsa lessons (offered twice a week) or clapping my hands while the Brazilian Samba dancers were showing off their incredible sensual dexterity during a mid-week visit that livened up the place – as if the delicious food needed a strong supporting actor at all. Entertainment aside, I will be returning for the great bites, the variety of dishes, and the low prices especially during Happy Hour. ¡Bienvenido Pan-Latino!